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CITYSCAPES / MATHIS CHAZANOV

Venice Beach Juggler Decides to Give His Chain Saw the Ax

July 30, 1994|MATHIS CHAZANOV

Even the Venice Beach chain saw guy is not immune to mid-career crisis. After 11 years of parlaying his stupid human trick into a modest level of renown, Robert Gruenberg is putting away the Sears Craftsman.

Off it will go into the garage (his landlady thinks he's in the gardening business), along with the bowling balls and a five-foot-long fake fish, all props for a wacky juggler who has long been a mainstay of the grungy stretch of beachfront tourist attractions. Gruenberg's loony, menacing persona is still on view for now, as he wears wraparound shades and flings machetes, bowling balls and offensive gibes with abandon.

But Gruenberg, 35, a sidewalk comic who made his shtick into a widely accepted metaphor for self-inflicted, death-defying stupidity, is not kidding about his decision to hang up the chain saws. After the tourist season, of course.

The gas-powered gag is artistically limiting, he says. Besides, his back hurts, he is tired of the chain saw guy's hostile nature, he wants to provide better things for his 4-year-old daughter and he is dreaming of a transition to a "Seinfeld"-like TV show called "Chain Saw Dad" or simply, "Gruenberg."

"I just want to leave while I have a hand left to wave," he says. "That's sort of a cute line, but it's also sort of pathetic that I'd have to do something that could hurt me to get people to watch me when I just want to be a comedian."

Meanwhile, there are tourists to taunt, old ladies to threaten ("Don't pretend you don't know me, Mom!") and members of racial and ethnic minorities to insult--whatever it takes to hold the attention of the fickle masses who drift up and down the beachfront like clumps of seaweed.

That's the hard part: crowd control ("Watch my show or I'll kill you") and accounts receivable ("Kids, if your parents don't give you some money for me, it means they don't love you.").

*

The Torrance resident says he developed the chain saw routine to keep his mind focused on his juggling.

"I was such a good juggler inside my bedroom, but when I got out in front of people, I would drop everything," he says. "But with the chain saw, I was so afraid that I would hurt myself that I was able to conquer my fear."

Gruenberg's debut came at the height of a boom in boardwalk visits linked to the increased popularity of seaside roller-skating, says Bob Goodfader, longtime owner of the Sidewalk Cafe and other beachfront enterprises.

The chain saw act has loomed particularly large, Goodfader says, because "it's an extreme, which Venice is. He's one real extreme and he's got a show that people really watch."

Even so, Gruenberg plans to quit despite a profitable run that included jobs in Las Vegas, TV commercials, appearances at corporate dinners and a spot on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

Gruenberg says he intends to bid farewell to the boardwalk sometime in September, with a final flourish--nude chain-saw juggling--if friends will donate $10,000 to benefit AIDS care and research.

Gruenberg, who won some unfavorable ink when the IRS came after him one April on felony charges of understating his revenues (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor), takes up the collection before the whirring chain saw starts flying.

"Come on, damn it," he mutters. "I've got a Porsche." (The former operator of a used car lot really drives a secondhand Mercedes he bought for $700.)

Then he tapes shut the throttle and does his thing, flipping an egg, a half-eaten apple and the 15-pound machine from hand to hand, behind his back and under a leg. A skeptical volunteer from the crowd, meanwhile, lies beneath him on the sidewalk.

"I'm insane," says Gordon Taub, 23, who volunteered twice last week. "He just picked me out of the crowd. I'm looking for work but I'm not looking for this."

Why is the image of the chain saw juggler so striking?

"It's almost like a metaphor come alive," says Leo Braudy, a USC literature professor and author of "Frenzy of Renown," a study of fame. "It's like someone made up the joke and he decided to do it . . . to pull together an image of chaos and turn it into some kind of artistic shape."

Eric Mankin of Petaluma, a former machete juggler turned juggling impresario, says: "It has the element of risking everything for something trivial, for the enjoyment of the crowd. He should bill it as 'Chain Saw Juggler--A Farewell to Arms.' "

Venice civic leaders recently named Gruenberg beachfront entertainer of the month, an honor worth $200 in prizes.

But they say his departure will not mark a turning point for the popular seafront strip. "I've seen more new acts this summer than in the last two years," says Mark Ryavec, executive director of the Venice Boardwalk Assn. "We're down one chain saw juggler, but we still have Chad."

Indeed, Chad Taylor, who occasionally jokes and juggles on the boardwalk, has also wielded a chain saw from time to time. But he, too, is leery of defining himself by mastery of the noisy machine.

"(Gruenberg) is the main guy on the boardwalk," Taylor says. "I'm not that big on the Venice Beach chain saw title. I got into it because everywhere you go and do a juggling act, people ask: 'Why aren't you juggling the chain saw?' "

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